Italian designer, architect, artist, and publisher
Giovanni “Gio” Ponti (born November 18, 1891, Milan, Italy–died September 16, 1979, Milan, Italy) was one of the most influential Italian architects, industrial designers, furniture designers, artists, and publishers of the 20th century. He is considered the father of modern Italian design and is associated with the development of modern architecture in Italy. Throughout his long creative career, which spanned more than six decades, Gio Ponti created numerous furniture, decorative art, and industrial product designs using artisanal and modern production techniques, in addition to creating important works of architecture in Italy and abroad.
Ponti graduated from the Politecnico di Milano in 1921. In 1923, he started his first industrial design work for the Richard Ginori pottery factory, close to Florence. Two years later, he convinced Richard Ginory to participate in the Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (a 1925 Paris exposition), where Ponti’s ceramic designs were very successful and where he forged a lasting relationship with Christofle executive and shareholder Tony Bouilhet, for whom he designed Villa Bouilhet, one of Ponti’s earliest house designs, at the Saint-Cloud golf club near Paris. During his 15-year relationship with the pottery factory, especially during the early years, Gio Ponti collaborated with craftsmen and artisans to create rich designs with abundant colors, elaborate shapes, and skilled craftsmanship, mostly in the neoclassical style. This style/approach was at great odds with the functional and minimal approach of the then-prevalent Italian Rationalism, and it was broadly present in Ponti’s work in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming less so over later years. read more
In 1928, he started Domus, an architecture and design magazine with a mission to energize Italian architecture, interior design, and decorative arts. His leadership at Domus would allow him to express his ideas regarding the Novecento artistic movement, a counter-movement to Rationalismo, and also to showcase the best of Italian design. He left Domus in 1941 to start Stile magazine but returned to Domus in 1947 for the rest of life.
Furniture, objects, and interior design
There have been many books, magazine articles, and exhibitions dedicated to exploring the influence and uniqueness of Gio Ponti’s product, furniture, and interior design work. During his career, he created an enormous amount of ceramics, furnishings, and objects. Some of his designs he created alone, and others in collaboration with other artists and designers of the time. Moreover, some of the objects he created himself, while others were done in workshops by expert craftsmen. Still others were manufactured by some of the major furniture manufacturing companies of the time, as he was interested in both industrial and craft production of his designs.
In 1923, Ponti made his public debut as a product designer at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza, which was followed by his involvement in organizing the subsequent Triennale exhibitions of Monza and Milan. In 1933, Ponti tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit and invited Pietro Chiesa to join him and Luigi Fontana—owner of one of the largest glass manufacturers in Italy—to create Fontana Arte, a company that would become a force in Italian furniture design and that specialized in manufacturing furniture, lighting, and furnishing accessories.
In the 1940s, he collaborated with Paolo de Poli in the the production of furniture, decorative panels, and new objects of design and animal motifs in sculptural forms, and in 1946, he started three years of involvement designing Murano glassware for Venini.
During the early 1930s, Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti started a long, productive, and somewhat formulaic collaboration, as it mostly consisted of Ponti-designed furniture decorated with Fornasetti paintings. During the 1950s, as is the case with other important Italian designers of the time, such as Nino Zoncada, Gustavo Pulitzer, Paolo de Poli, Pietro Chiesa, and Gino Sarfatti, Gio Ponti was involved in many interior and furniture design projects for ocean liners. During this time, Gio Ponti’s collaboration with Piero Fornasetti intensified when Ponti invited Piero to collaborate in the creation of furnishings for large ocean liner, villas, and hotel projects. In 1947, Gio Ponti established a long and strong friendship with Italian architect and designer Ico Parisi and his wife, Luisa Aiani, when they collaborated in the design studio La Ruota.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Ponti designed many furniture pieces, of which his chairs and sofas became extremely popular for their joyful sprit and streamlined modern sensuality—characteristics that are persistent throughout most of his creative work. Among his important chair designs are the armchair model no. 811 for Figli di Amedeo Cassina (1950), with an inclined and angular wooden frame and a suspension system for the seat and backrest made out of elastic belts made by Pirelli; the Model 111, also for Figli di Amedeo Cassina (1950); the Diamond sofa, originally made for his house (Cassina,1953); the Mariposa, or butterfly, chair, which was originally designed for the Villa Planchart in Caracas (1955); the successfully omnipresent Superleggera chair, also for Cassina (1957), the crowning achievement of a long and fruitful work relationship designing furniture and objects for Cassina; the Continuum rattan chair for Pierantonio Bonacina (1963); the Dezza armchair for Poltrona Frau in 1966; and the Gabriela chair, or the Sedia di poco sedile, for Pallucco (1971).
Gio Ponti’s other important works with Italian furniture manufacturers include the series of chairs, lounges, desk chairs, and desks designed in 1950 for the Vembi-Burroughs office in Genoa; the designs of cabinets and sideboards for Singer & Sons (1951); the vanity desk or vanity dressing table for Giordano Chiesa (1951); the side table D 5551 originally designed for his house in Via Dezza in Milan (1954); the 1960 and 1964 furnishings for the hotels Parco dei Principe in Rome and Parco dei Principe in Sorrento; and many furniture pieces he designed in the late 1960s for Tecno, Osvaldo Borsani’s furniture manufacturing company.
Gio Ponti participated in the architectural and interior design of two important hotels in Italy: the Hotel Parco dei Principe in Sorrento (1960) and the Hotel Parco dei Principe in Roma (1964). For these two hotel projects, he designed uniquely modern interiors and furnishings in collaboration with Fausto Melotti, Ico Parisi, and others. In 1966, he invited lighting designer Elio Martinelli to showcase his lamps at the inaugural Eurodomus exhibition, which catapulted Martinelli’s career as an innovative light designer.
Important Architectural Work
Among Ponti’s most important buildings of the 1930s are the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Rome (1934), the Catholic Press Exhibition in Vatican City (1936), and the first office block of the Montecatini company in Milan (1936). In 1950, Alberto Pirelli, the owner of the Pirelli tire company, selected Gio Ponti to design and develop a building to house the offices of his company. Gio Ponti hired architects Pier Luigi Nervi and Arturo Danusso to collaborate with him, and the team began the construction of the Pirelli Tower in 1956. When completed in 1958, the 32-story, 127-meter-high Pirelli Tower, with its unique hexagonal plan, became Italy’s first skyscraper and a symbol of the postwar economic recovery of Italy.
Two of his most renowned architectural works, though, were built outside of Italy. One of these works is Villa Planchart, or “El Cerrito” (1955), in Caracas, built for Anala and Armando Planchart at the top of a hill, or cerro, overlooking Caracas. For Villa Planchart, Ponti designed not only the 10,000-square-foot, six-bedroom house but also the furniture and decorative objects. Another famous work of Ponti’s is Villa Nemazee (1957–1964) in Tehran. This home was commissioned by the Namazee family at the recommendation of Mohsen Foroughi, architect and dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University. For Villa Namezee, Ponti developed a design based on the traditional Iranian courtyard house. Sadly, the Iranian regime decided to revoke the villa’s heritage status, making its future highly uncertain. Italian artist and ceramicist Fausto Melotti collaborated extensively on the interior design and furnishings of both villas.
By the 1970s, at the end of his career, Gio Ponti had intensified his quest for transparency and lightness. It was during this time that he designed and built facades resembling undulated and perforated sheets of paper with geometric shapes and unique patterns. In 1970, he finished the Taranto Cathedral, a white rectangular building topped with a huge concrete façade perforated with openings. In 1971, he contributed to the exterior envelope design of the Denver Art Museum in Colorado—the only Gio Ponti building in North America. He also submitted the project design for the future Centre Pompidou in Paris.
In 1934, he was given the title of Commander of the Royal Order of Vasa in Stockholm. He also obtained the Accademia d’Italia Art Prize for his artistic merits, the gold medal from the Académie d’Architecture in Paris, and an honorary doctorate from the London Royal College of Art.
Gio Ponti died in 1979 on Via Nezza in Milan. His design objects and furniture remain in high demand today by collectors, and many of them are considered iconoclastic examples of mid-century Italian design.
Since his death, there have been many exhibitions of Gio Ponti’s contributions to architecture and interior and furniture design. Among the most important exhibitions are “Gio Ponti: A Metaphysical World” at the Queens Museum of Art (2001), “Gio Ponti: A World” at the Design Museum in London (2010), “Modern Living: Giò Ponti and the 20th-Century Aesthetics of Design” at the Georgia Museum of Art (2017), and “Tutto Ponit: Gio Ponti Archi-Desinger” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (October 2018–May 2019).
Last updated: August 15, 2019
For more information on Gio Ponti, please visit Gio Ponti Archives
Photo of Villa Planchard provided by Riccio Leon under Creative Commons
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